2011 may well prove to be Miguel Cotto’s last successful year as a prizefighter. It was a year that saw him notch probably his most meaningful victory — a 10th round stoppage of nemesis Antonio Margarito — but also struggle with treadless tire Ricardo Mayorga. Much as “Ecce Homo” betrays glimpses of Nietzsche’s impending madness, Cotto’s performances in the last two years have evidenced the irreversible deterioration of his abilities. With a lopsided defeat at the hands of Floyd Mayweather looming, and a timely retirement unlikely, the time to reflect on his career is now.
In the opening chapter of “Ecce Homo,” 19th century German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche writes: “I only attack things when every personal quarrel is excluded, when any background of bad experiences is lacking.” Cotto, with a few exceptions, conducted himself according to a similar principle. His press conferences never deteriorated into forums for scurrility or unsanctioned violence. He never spoke disparagingly or dismissively of his opposition, instead issuing measured compliments and stock commentary on his own preparation.
Appurtenant media responsibilities seemed to receive, at best, warm tolerance. While countrymen Felix Trinidad and JuanMa Lopez both appear more comfortable behind the microphone — Lopez’ recent episode excluded — it was Cotto who committed to learning English. He would never be an especially compelling interview, but he would speak for himself; his words, however few, issued from his own lips.
Thankfully, his fists weren’t as laconic as his mouth. For much of his career Cotto promised a debilitating fistic aggregate. But even when pummeling amateur nemesis Kelson Pinto, or eviscerating fellow Boricua Carlos Quintana — the popular pick on their island — the hurt was administered clinically, without any histrionics.
Between the ropes Cotto was, in the words of “The Wire’s” Lt. Daniels, “about the work” — personal quarrel and background experiences were irrelevant. No quarter was shown, but malice was equally absent. This is a refreshing trait in a sport where hackneyed threats so often precede competition and where rules are needed to mitigate savage intentions.
It would be dishonest to pass over moments when Cotto was less than exemplary. His fists strayed low against Zab Judah and Ricardo Torres to secure him reprieve in perilous moments. There’s no indication that in resorting to fouls Cotto transgressed his ethic of violence, especially since the circumstances that prompted them were similar. Is this a comment on his commitment to winning? Evidence of a lack of sportsmanship? Any answer is probably coloured by the individual’s already formed appraisal of Cotto, appropriated into that portrait as beauty mark or wart depending on one’s perspective. But beauty mark or wart, it isn’t one of Cotto’s defining features.
Cotto did himself a disservice while negotiating the rematch with Margarito as well, by trying to impose supernumerary conditions on the fight. He restored his dignity through relenting in his most nonsensical demands and besting his tormentor in the ring. Having exacted his revenge, Cotto was asked to share his feelings toward the man he believed beat him with loaded gloves. “He means nothing to me,” was his response. Ever the professional.
This professionalism was also evident in who he fought. Again, “Ecce Homo” provides a point of departure. “When I compare myself with the men who have so far been honored as the first, the difference is palpable.” Cotto is positioned for a similar comparison. His upcoming junior middleweight opponent, the undefeated Floyd Mayweather Jr., is largely considered the sport’s supreme practitioner. No challenge to his throne will be found here or in the ring May 5. But a palpable difference between Cotto and Mayweather reflects favourably on the former.
Unlike Mayweather, Cotto’s professional ledger is blemished, and his two loses are via brutal stoppage. But the two men who made Cotto capitulate — Antonio Margarito and Manny Pacquiao — have never shared a ring with Mayweather, and that is telling. Mayweather reportedly turned down eight million dollars to avoid the rugged Margarito, and the less said about a fight with Pacquiao the better. Cotto however, did what prizefighters do: He took the best offer on the table, and emptied his clip. It wasn’t enough against Margarito and Pacquaio, but that’s not the point. Pondering where Cotto ranks among his contemporaries, and whether that ranking is accurate, also misses the mark.
What is paramount is that Cotto fought the best of his era, and did so without hesitation. In an age where fighters fancy themselves promoters, and participation in an even fight is justification for entry to Valhalla, Cotto left the negotiating table to the suits and laced up his gloves. The honesty and simplicity of this approach resonated with at least one fan who recognized a similar quiet sense of duty in the sacrifices of a parent.
This approach, coupled with his limitations as a fighter, would see him beaten eventually.
Physically, he never recovered from the dubious beating from Margarito and the fury of Pacquiao. Residual psychical damage may linger as well. There’s also a price to be paid for how he lost both fights, avoiding as he did the celebrated gladiator’s defeat. He’s been criticized for taking a knee to end his night against Margarito. But comfort in criticizing him for this taboo act exists in direct proportion to the belief that Margarito fought without doctored wraps. And while Cotto fought in retreat for much of the Pacquiao fight, he endured an assault that drove his family from ringside before referee Kenny Bayless rescued him. Cotto didn’t embrace his destruction like a Margarito or JuanMa Lopez — choosing instead to employ a safer strategy when physicality wasn’t in his favour — but he took his lumps.
So yes, if self-preservation is a crime in boxing, Miguel Cotto is guilty of it. He was a professional fighter but the ring was not his existential proving ground. From “Ecce Homo”: “I am one thing, my writings are another matter.” Cotto exhibited a similar perspective on his career: The value he placed on his life beyond the ropes could be seen to dictate his conduct between them. Fans may criticize him for having perspective, but it’s unlikely his family will.
Outside the ring he endured a schism in his family, problems in his marriage, bouts with alcohol, and the premature death of his father. An affinity for tattoos that developed after his loss to Margarito might betray a fragility in him. The body-art may very well be a way of emoting for a man who has cultivated a quiet stoicism. If so, Cotto is quite literally wearing his fragility, putting it on display, in a sport where masculinity is the law, and employing empty rhetoric about dying in the ring is rewarded with apotheosis. There is something endearing in that.
The subtitle to “Ecce Homo” is “How One Becomes What One Is.” Nietzsche finds the answer primarily in his character, in the blend of atavism and untimely modernity that defined him. Using the same evidence, Miguel Cotto is revealed to be a man who became who he was as a prizefighter because of a refreshing dignity and ennobling professionalism. To appreciate him is to understand that sometimes the means are the end, that what he did as a fighter has much to do with how he did it.
Behold the man.
Read more from Jimmy Tobin at his blog, In Between Rounds.